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IBM and Higher Ed Push for a 'Smarter Planet' with SSME Curriculum

A Q&A with IBM Director of Global University Programs Jim Spohrer

IBM announced today that it is collaborating with 250-plus universities in 50 countries to promote Service Science Management and Engineering (SSME) curriculum, with the ultimate goal of creating solutions for a "Smarter Planet." SSME is designed to produce students with the divergent combination of skills required--in business, technology, and social sciences--to work with complex systems and networks like the energy grid or water management. CT asked Jim Spohrer (pictured), IBM's director of Global University Programs, for more details.

Campus Technology: You've recently become director of Global University Programs at IBM, but I know you've led other groups and initiatives at the company. Could you tell me a little about how your role has changed at IBM and something about the programs you are working on now?

Jim Spohrer: In the past ten years, I've been in IBM Research, then CTO of IBM Venture Capital Group, then back to Research to start the first Service Research group--most people do not know that over 60 percent of IBM revenue comes from our technology and business service groups. And now, I'm happy to be part of Global University Programs working on topics from nanotechnology, to mainframe computers, to cloud computing, to cell chip architectures... and also SSME and Smarter Planet, which are continuations of the service research work. IBM has offered terrific opportunities to learn, especially in a world that is changing as rapidly as ours through technological change, and social changes like globalization.

CT: Today's announcement from IBM centers around SSME--the discipline of Service Science Management and Engineering. You actually founded SSME, which is now being incorporated in academic programs worldwide. Could you explain how it got started?

Spohrer: Six years ago when I started the first service research group in IBM Research, it was clear to me and others that we needed to employ a different type of person--someone who combined business, technology, and social understanding with communications skills. In fact, we even hired anthropologists in order to understand the human element of service better. We call this new type of person an SSME graduate to emphasize the importance of the combination of business, technology, and social skills. We asked our university partners to start teaching courses in SSME, as well as establishing bachelor, masters, and doctoral degree programs. So SSME started out as a need for people with new skill sets: deep in one area, and broad across other areas.This is what we call a 'T-shaped' person.

Today, more than 250 universities in 50 countries teach SSME-related courses. That means more and more students are starting to understand the importance of service in modern economies. This is reflected not only in terms of number of jobs and percentage of GDP (gross domestic product), but also in the diversity of types of service systems--health care, transportation, retail, financial, etc.

If someone asks me what is special about an SSME graduate, I say that the number of industries, from health care to retail, and the number of academic disciplines, from computer science to marketing, that they can intelligently communicate about is way, way above average. These graduates have a better understanding of the complexity of the modern world than the average student, and they can communicate with others about that complexity. They also know that we are customers of over 40 different service systems every day on average, from the minute we turn on the light (the electric utility service), or turn on the faucet (the water management service), or drive to school or work (the transportation service system), or buy something (the retail service system), etc. They also know about how quality of life suffers when these service systems fail or perform poorly. So SSME is the study of complex systems that serve customers--and we have a lot of them in our modern lives. And, they are changing rapidly because of technological, economic, and social forces interacting.

CT: Of the institutions involved now in SSME by teaching courses or offering degree or certificate programs, are most US-based? Is SSME important for both highly developed and emerging economies?

Spohrer: SSME involvement tracks with GDP, so the US has more SSME-related programs than any other nation. But remember, SSME is still only about five years old. When computer science started in the mid-1940s it took about 30 years to reach a stage of maturity that people in CS courses would recognize today. But we do find that SSME is catching on in both developed and emerging economies.

CT: How are curriculum programs formally recognizing SSME at US-based higher education institutions?

Spohrer: Most universities start by offering an SSME course, which teaches students about the management, engineering, and social aspects of the diverse service systems that make up our modern, high quality of life. Some offer a certificate to students who complete the course. Some have begun to start SSME-related bachelor and master's degrees. For example, Service Systems Engineering is an undergraduate bachelor's degree at Michigan Tech, and North Carolina State University has a masters program that teaches SSME by combining computer science and school of management courses.

At the masters level there is a lot of flexibility, and universities can create programs within existing engineering or business degree programs. At the undergraduate level, there is typically a more formal process, and programs are still working with accreditation organizations on how to best evolve the programs to a formal status. These things take time, but efforts are underway.

CT: What are the opportunities for partnerships between US-based institutions and education institutions in developing economies for collaboration in SSME?

Spohrer: First, industry, academic, and government players as well as individuals are invited to become members of SRII (Service Research and Innovation Institute). This is an umbrella organization over the many industry and discipline areas that have started Special Interest Groups (SIGs) that focus on service. For example, INFORMS (Operations Research and Management Sciences) has a Service SIG, as do AMA (American Marketing Association) and AIS (Information Systems). Joining SRII is a great way to become a part of the community and start looking for other partnership opportunities.

CT: Today's announcement emphasizes how SSME can drive change for a "Smarter Planet." Could you describe the notion of a "Smarter Planet" and how that fits in with SSME?

Spohrer: The global financial crisis has made many people aware ofthe need for government investment with industry and/or academia, for public/private partnerships to improve service systems, from financial service businesses to other types of infrastructures that we all depend on as customers to enjoy a relatively high quality of life. The world has become very complex, especially because different parts of the world are more instrumented and interconnected and therefore more interdependent than ever before. Also, more and more information technology is enabling these complex systems to become smarter--to serve us as customers better. For example, imagine your washing machine or dishwasher displaying the cost of electricity, including the costs for different times of the current day. People may then decide to wait an hour or two in order to get a better rate--this smoothes out demand.

At IBM we call this the Smarter Planet initiative, and it is all about working together to create smarter transportation, smarter healthcare, smarter water management, smarter cities, and a smart grid. The idea is to create smarter systems for all the major industries, and even smart skills--and that is where SSME comes in. SSME is about people with the knowledge to understand these complex service systems, and to work on multidisciplinary teams with people from around the world to improve these systems, and improve quality of life, sustainably.

IBM will be hosting a Smarter Planet University Jam--an online event where people share ideas and brainstorm ways to create a Smarter Planet. Faculty and students from universities around the world will join us in the Jam taking place April 21-23 to overlap with Earth Day.

CT: What are some of the next steps for SSME? And who are IBM's partners in formal SSME efforts? Where will the industry take the notion of SSME?

Spohrer: The next steps for SSME are being co-created by the SRII community, which includes industry, academic, and government players, and a soon-to-be-launched new industry and discipline special interest group (SIG) structure. Individuals and organizations can go to the SRII Web site to become members and find out how to get involved.

The future of SSME has a practical component, as more partners join SRII and share information about how specific industries and disciplines approach service innovation--the innovation of complex business, technology, and social systems.

However, the future of SSME also has a theoretical component, as the scientific foundations of the study of complex systems that serve customers advance. Many times in science things that may seem complex and very different from each other are actually at their core unified and can be viewed more simply. For example, electricity and magnetism were once studied as separate phenomena; later, they were unified in a theory of electromagnetism. Perhaps the many industries and disciplines we study in SSME are not as different as we think today--perhaps there is a simpler underlying story that connects them all. That recognition may someday be known as one of the major contributions of SSME.

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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